COMET • Vol. 10, No. 19 – 21 September 2009


(1) Premiere of Hard Problems, a Documentary about the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad Team

Source: Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI)

You are invited to attend a premier showing of the 90-minute feature documentary Hard Problems (The Road to the World’s Toughest Math Contest) at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley, CA, on Wednesday, September 30, from 5-8 p.m. A reception for George Paul Csicsery, the filmmaker, will be followed by a panel discussion led by former International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) medal winner and coach Paul Zeitz; students from the film and the 2006 IMO team; and leaders from MSRI’s Bay Area Math Circles, Olympiad, and Festival programs. Visit for more details.

PBS stations will begin showing Hard Problems in October. See for airdates and times. To preview the movie, visit and click on “Trailer.”

[From] Hard Problems is a feature documentary about the extraordinarily gifted students who represented the United States in 2006 at the world’s toughest math competition–the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). It is the story of six American high school students who competed with 500 others from 90 countries in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The film shows the dedication and perseverance of these remarkably talented students, the rigorous preparation they undertake, their individuality, and the joy they get out of solving challenging problems. Above all, it captures the spirit of math competitions at the highest level…

American math Olympiad teams regularly finish among the top teams. While aiming to inspire and entertain, Hard Problems provides an insightful and thoughtful look at the process that produces successful teams, and ultimately, great mathematicians of the future.

Hard Problems takes a close look at exceptional students who make it to the highest levels of high school math, asking teachers, parents, siblings, and the students themselves to shed light on what produces mathematical genius and how to nurture it. As we get to know them, the students in Hard Problems shatter many stereotypes and clichés about the mathematically gifted…

[For more details, go to and click on “Synopsis.”]


(2) State Schools Chief Jack O’Connell Announces Digital Partnership That Will Benefit Public Education in California

Source: California Department of Education
URL (Press Release): 

Last Thursday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell announced that the Imperial County Office of Education (ICOE), which operates California’s K-12 High Speed Network, has received a $125,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation to help schools around the state to maximize the value and use of Verizon’s educational resources.

“This exciting project is endless in its potential benefit to K-12 public education in California,” said O’Connell. “The partnership between the K-12 High Speed Network and Verizon will provide California educators with access and the ability to share innovative, high-quality content, and engage in extensive professional development training.”

In 2004, the California Department of Education awarded a grant to ICOE to serve as lead agency in creating California’s K-12 High Speed Network, which now provides high-bandwidth Internet access to county offices of education, school districts, and K-12 schools. ICOE is responsible for administering the Network, as well as providing for the continuation and growth of network services and other support activities.

Verizon is a free, comprehensive Web site containing more than 55,000 educational resources, including standards-based, grade-specific, K-12 lesson plans, online educational games, videos, and other materials provided in partnership with many of the nation’s leading educational organizations. Verizon offers teachers quick online access to resources across eight academic disciplines, including science, English, and mathematics, to improve student achievement. Students, parents, and after-school programs may also take advantage of the educational and literacy resources.

“We are excited to partner with the Verizon program,” said Chief Executive Officer Todd Finnell of the California K-12 High Speed Network. “Their robust collection of resources from outstanding content providers is now combined with the statewide reach of our distribution and support network. We’re proud to support California educators with increased access to these high-quality supplemental resources.”

ICOE will link California’s K-12 High Speed Network to thousands of Verizon’s educational resources through Calaxy. Calaxy is a free suite of online tools, including blogs, videoconference scheduling, wikis, asset management module, online course management system, and file sharing system. Educators may upload and share videos, podcasts, images, documents, lesson plans, ideas, and best practices with other teachers around California.

“Sharing best practices and solutions to problems in as far-reaching a manner as possible will help educators avoid wasting time reinventing the same solutions,” added O’Connell. “My Brokers of Expertise initiative has made this a priority so educators may embrace technology to collaborate on effective tools to close the achievement gap and raise overall student achievement statewide. The partnership between the K-12 High Speed Network and Verizon will now be a model of education reform to emulate that will be featured in my Brokers of Expertise initiative.”

The Brokers of Expertise project was introduced by O’Connell last year as a knowledge management system to gather educational research that meets high standards, cull the data for meaningful trends, and develop workable strategies to improve student achievement in California. The California Department of Education is working with ICOE to establish the Brokers of Expertise Web site by June 2010 on the K-12 High Speed Network.

For more information on ICOE, the California K-12 High Speed Network, please visit For information on Calaxy, visit For Verizon, please visit For Brokers of Expertise, please visit


(3) Team America Rocketry Challenge 2010

Source: Spotbeam California (California State Authority) – 21 September 2009

California school teams are encouraged to register for the Team America Rocketry Challenge 2010, the world’s largest model rocket contest for U.S. students in grades 7 through 12. Teams of three to 10 students are challenged to design, build, and fly a model rocket that will climb to 825 feet with a raw egg payload and stay aloft for 40 to 45 seconds. The payload must then return to earth unbroken. Cash prizes are awarded to the top finishers.

NASA invites top teams to participate in NASA’s Student Launch Initiative, an advanced rocketry program. Participation is limited to the first 750 teams who register by November 30, 2009. For more information, visit Questions about this contest should be sent to



(1) Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and English Language Arts are Now Available for Comment

Source: Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) – 21 September 2009
Contacts: Jodi Omear (NGA), (202) 624-5346, and Kara Schlosser (CCSSO), (202) 336-7034
URL (main page):
URL (Standards):

Earlier today, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) released the first official public draft of the college- and career-readiness standards in English-language arts and mathematics as part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a process being led by governors and chief state school officers in 51 states and territories. The purpose of the standards is to define the knowledge and skills students should have to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing, academic college courses and in workforce training programs.

The NGA Center and CCSSO are encouraging those interested in the standards to provide feedback, which must be supported by research and evidence, by October 21 at

After the feedback period, the standards are subject to review by an expert Validation Committee. The Validation Committee is composed of national and international experts on standards. This group will review the standards development process and the substance of the standards to ensure they are research- and evidence-based. Members of the committee are being selected by governors and chiefs and will be formally announced in the coming weeks.

The NGA Center and CCSSO will soon begin the process of developing the K-12 standards that will enable students to meet the validated college and career-readiness standards.

“We are pleased to release the college- and career-readiness standards today and to begin receiving comments on them,” said Dane Linn, director of the NGA Center’s Education Division. “These standards are vital to ensuring our students are prepared to compete and succeed in a global economy. I would also like to thank Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue for serving as the NGA co-leads on this initiative.”

“The college- and career-readiness standards are really just the beginning,” stated Gene Wilhoit, executive director of CCSSO. “We need this confirmed, validated goal of fewer, clearer, and higher standards to take on the real work of ensuring students have a roadmap from grades K-12 for achieving these standards.”

The college- and career-readiness standards have been informed by input from education and content experts and feedback from participating states. They were developed based on the following guiding considerations:

= Fewer, clearer, higher: It is critical that any standards document be translatable to and teachable in the classroom. As such, the standards must cover only those areas that are critical for student success.
= Evidence: Each document includes sources of evidence for the standards. Evidence informed what was included in the standards.
= Internationally benchmarked: These standards are informed by the content, rigor and organization of standards of high-performing countries and states.
= Special populations: In the development of these standards, the inclusion of all types of learners was a priority.
= Assessment: The standards will ultimately be the basis for a system of high quality assessments.
= Standards and curriculum: Standards are not curriculum. The curriculum that follows will continue to be a local responsibility (or state-led, where appropriate).
= 21st century skills: The draft English-language arts and mathematics standards have incorporated 21st century skills.


The introduction to the Standards appears at

An excerpt appears below:

The College and Career Readiness Standards for Mathematics consist of three interconnected parts: a Standard for Mathematical Practice, ten Standards for Mathematical Content, and a set of Example Tasks.

The Standard for Mathematical Practice has six Core Practices that describe the way proficient students approach mathematics. Proficient students attend to precision, construct viable arguments, make sense of complex problems and persevere in solving them, look for hidden structure, note regularity in repeated reasoning, and use technology intelligently. This approach to mathematics is an essential part of being ready for college and career.

The Standards for Mathematical Content form the backbone of this document. Each of these ten standards consists of Core Concepts, Core Skills, and a description of the student’s Coherent Understanding. Students who encounter the subject with a focus on coherence will be better able to learn more mathematics at a deeper level and be better able to access and apply the mathematics they know. The ten Standards for Mathematical Content pull together topics previously studied and look ahead toward topics in further coursework and training programs.

The Standards for Mathematical Content are designed to draw greater attention to powerful organizing principles in mathematics, such as functional relationships or the laws of arithmetic. They also allow important distinctions to be made more clearly, such as that between Expressions and Equations. And they surface the deep connections that often underlie mathematical coherence, such as the blending of algebra with geometry represented by Coordinates. These ten are not categories or buckets of topics to cover; they are standards. They describe the coherence students need and deserve as they go forward to their mathematical futures.

The third component of the College and Career Readiness Standards for Mathematics is a Web-based collection of Example Tasks that exemplifies the variety of performances required. High standards demand that students use their knowledge, skills and good practices to solve problems from a variety of contexts, both within mathematics and from the world outside. Example Tasks exemplify the range and variety of use that is expected. Teachers and designers of curriculum and assessment will find in the collection of examples a guide to what these standards mean. Over time, the collection of tasks will grow.

Together, these three components establish an evidence-based standard for college and career readiness. The College and Career Readiness Standards for Mathematics have been created with attention to the expectations of the highest achieving countries. They have focus and depth, emphasizing the understanding of and connections among topics that are most important for success regardless of a student’s pathway after reaching these standards.


Related Article:

“Revised Draft of ‘Common Core’ Standards Unveiled” by Sean Cavanagh
Source: Education Week – 21 September 2009

[Excerpt]…After the standards are reviewed, revised, and final in form, states will be expected by early next year to submit a timeline and process for approving them, according to the proposed NGA and CCSSO schedule. Mr. Wilhoit said states would be asked to consider the final college- and career-readiness and K-12 standards documents at the same time.

States could soon have a strong incentive to take the Common Core standards process seriously. The Obama administration has proposed giving states that adopt common standards a competitive advantage in seeking federal aid, as part of the $4 billion Race to the Top Fund, a pool of economic-stimulus money…


(2) MAA Congressional Briefing Tomorrow will Stress Diversity in Mathematics

Source: Susan Kennedy, Mathematical Association of America (MAA) – (202) 319-8465
URL (Invitation):
URL (Press Releases): and

The media, educators, science professionals, and interested parties are invited to a Congressional briefing tomorrow, September 22, 2009, when three experts in mathematics education will examine the state of undergraduate enrollment and retention of women and minorities in the mathematical sciences, reveal strategies that can bolster recruitment and retention, and recommend federal policies that can increase the number of mathematics majors in U.S. colleges and universities.

Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX), co-chair of the House Diversity and Innovation Caucus, in partnership with the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), headquartered in Washington, D.C., organized the briefing, which is titled “Diversity and the Future of STEM: Filling the Undergraduate Mathematics Education Pipeline.” MAA plans to post the presented papers on the MAA Web site ( following the briefing; a follow-up article is also planned.

The main goal of the MAA’s diversity effort is to improve recruitment and retention of women and students from underrepresented groups in the STEM majors. This effort is part of an overall program to recruit and retain all students, but the effort is particularly important if the U.S. is to reverse current trends and again begin improving the representation of students from groups that traditionally have not been well-represented among STEM majors.

According to the U.S. Census, 39 percent of the population under the age of 18 is a racial or ethnic minority. Yet, in 2000, only 4.4 percent of the science and engineering jobs were held by African Americans and only 3.4 percent by Hispanics. While women constitute over half of the post-secondary students in the nation, they represent a little more than one-fourth of our science and engineering workforce. These are the sort of imbalances that caucus policies will seek to correct.

After considerable progress during the 1990s in increasing the proportion of women and underrepresented minorities among those majoring in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (the STEM disciplines), there has been significant slippage during the past decade. This decline is important because the rate of production of engineers and mathematical science majors is essentially where it was two decades ago–despite a 22% increase in the U.S. population since then.

The purpose of tomorrow’s briefing’s is to alert members of Congress to the importance of recruitment and retention of women and students from underrepresented groups in the STEM majors and the key role that mathematics has to play in this effort. If the U.S. fails to do so, the nation will not be able to supply the trained workforce that its economy requires, and these students will largely be cut off from the many opportunities afforded to STEM majors.

MAA President David Bressoud (Macalester College), reviewing the current state of diversity in mathematics education, will point out that mathematics is the bridge to careers in engineering and science. Success in mathematics prepares all students for work in the STEM fields.

“Fluctuations in engineering and mathematics enrollments are highly synchronized,” Bressoud contends. “The 1990s saw significant decreases in both the number of engineering majors and the number of mathematics majors. Both numbers have since recovered, but to only just above the level of 1990.”

“Disturbingly, the recent recoveries in both disciplines are powered almost entirely by white males and non-U.S. residents,” he adds. “Women as well as African, Hispanic, and Native Americans are decreasing as a share of these majors. If we want to build a talented American workforce for the future, we cannot afford to ignore these students.”

For women in the mathematical sciences the shifts have been subtler, Bressoud notes, but “the downward trends since 2000 are particularly significant because the numbers are so large.”

Award-winning mathematician Sylvia T. Bozeman (Spelman College) and Carlos Castillo-Chavez (Regents Professor and Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor of Mathematical Biology at Arizona State University) will speak at the briefing. They will concentrate on underlying factors that have resulted in underrepresentation of African Americans and Hispanics in the mathematical sciences; suggest educational practices that can improve this situation; and consider the role the federal government can play to enhance STEM representation by minorities.

For a preview of some of David Bressoud’s remarks, see his article, ” We are Losing Women from Mathematics”, which contains a number of graphs showing trends in majors/degrees for males and females between 1980 and 2007, inclusive:

For background information on the MAA’s science and diversity policy initiatives, visit


(3) “Elementary School Students are Switching Classes” by Hannah Sampson

Source: The Miami Herald – 13 September 2009

…This school year, Palm Beach County [Florida] mandated…departmentalization for third through fifth grades at almost all of its elementary schools in the district.

It’s not required in Broward and Miami-Dade, but more than 250 elementary schools have implemented the strategy in some form.

Principals say they like the method because it allows their strongest teachers in an area–math, reading, writing or science–to specialize in those areas instead of teaching every subject to students…

At the school, classrooms are dedicated to subject areas: the science room is covered in posters about electricity and the laws of motion, and the writing room is decorated with a big pencil and phrases like “rev up your writing.”

Students generally stick together all day. When it’s time to switch classes, teachers have kids line up in single file in the hallway, watch as they make their way to the next room–and then welcome the next group that files in…

Mother Charmaine Andre said the format allows her 9-year-old son Cameron, a fourth-grader at Miramar Elementary, to learn in a variety of ways.

“He said he has fun,” Andre said. “They’re different, each one of them is different. They teach differently and he likes it”…

While departmentalization is not mandated in Broward and Miami-Dade, district officials are supportive of schools that want to use the system.

“We’re going to advocate it because there certainly is, not quite yet a research base, but there are strong indicators that departmentalizing in fourth and fifth grade is advantageous to the achievement of the kids,” said Broward Superintendent Jim Notter…

Principal Mayte Dovale said the kids are better prepared for middle school than peers who have a single teacher. And, she said, the system spreads responsibility for the students to every educator in a grade.

“It becomes a real community and that really creates a positive for the school,” Dovale said…

Education experts say the push to have teachers specialize in subject areas has come along with greater accountability and an emphasis on high-stakes testing like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

“You put so much of this emphasis on passing a test that you will be forcing more and more and more school districts to consider that elementary educators must be specialists and not generalists,” said Del Jarman, an assistant professor of education leadership at Ball State University.

Jarman said he would like to see an extensive study that could prove whether this type of school setup was more effective than the single-teacher method.

Walter Secada, department chair for the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami, said the risk is that teachers might only know how children perform in a certain area, not across all subjects.

“At elementary school, we pride ourselves on teachers having detailed information and detailed knowledge of their children as whole people,” he said. “The danger is that we lose that.”

Gisele Bishop, the fourth-grade department chairwoman at Miramar Elementary, said she was initially concerned about “giving up ownership” of her homeroom class. But that fear soon went away.

“After doing it for a few months, we saw that it was so much easier and we were getting so much more out of the students,” she said. “They adjust a lot quicker than the teachers did. After a couple of weeks, they got right into it.”